Vatican honour

Published: 27 Feb 2012 12:00

A FORMER student of St Peter's seminary in Cardross has become the first ever Scot to hold this prestigious position of canon of St Peter's Basilica.

Monsignor Charlie Burns pictured with Archbishop Mario Conti during a visit to St Mahew's chapel in Cardross, Dunbartonshire. PICTURES and WORDS by BILL HEANEY

From tiny St Mahew's chapel in Cardross, the smallest Catholic church in the Archdiocese of Glasgow, to St Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, the largest in the world …

That's the remarkable journey made in 60 years by Monsignor Charles Burns.

Mgr Burns was bestowed the special honour by Pope Benedict XVI.

Mgr Burns, a 79-year-old historian and archivist, was based in the Vatican until going into retirement in Glasgow in 2002, although he continued from time to time to do work there giving lectures on protocol to ambassadorial staff.

Hugely popular, he was described at the weekend by one Vatican watcher as "one of the most delightful and long-standing members of Rome's English-speaking community".

Vatican reporter Robert Mickens said: "He deserves this honour. Mgr Charlie, as he is commonly known, is an institution in the Eternal City.

"He first came here as a seminarian at the Scots College back in the early 1950s and, after doctoral studies in church history at the Gregorian University, ended up spending 35 years (1962-1997) as the chief archivist at the Vatican's Secret Archives.

"Because of his vast knowledge of the popes and the Vatican, the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy hired him in 1987 to lecture to the 'future' Church on papal diplomacy. After doing that for nearly a quarter of a century, he - officially at least - retired in 2002. That didn't last long.

"In 2003, the British Embassy to the Holy See invited him to be its ecclesiastical adviser. It was a brilliant choice. Ambassador Francis Campbell, who arrived in 2005, was especially keen to tap into the mine of information on Vatican protocol that few people could offer as

knowledgeably as Mgr Burns.

"He not only became a bridge to the most important contacts inside the Roman Curia, but he also proved to be a huge hit at receptions and dinner parties. His work for the embassy received such high praise that the current ambassador, Nigel Baker, retained his services."

In his new role as canon, Mgr Charlie will participate daily in the liturgies at St Peter's Basilica. He said: "I'm deeply grateful to the Holy Father for this exceptional gesture of benevolence."

Mgr Charlie was back in Cardross two years ago. The dozen or so Cardross parishioners who turned up at tiny St Mahew's on that showery Tuesday morning of August 17, 2010, were more privileged than they thought when he and Archbishop Mario Conti, an old friend from his student days, turned up to concelebrate Mass.

He said afterwards that in their student days he and Archbishop Conti had shared a common interest in history and heraldry and in gardens and gardening and the Arts.

He had a special affinity with St Mahew's because he and his fellow students in Cardross had worked hard manually to clear and restore the little chapel, which dates back to 1370, and bring it back into use in 1955.

It was one of the smallest and oldest chapels in Scotland and only Pluscarden Abbey in Morayshire could claim to have been in use longer.

St Mahew's, which stands in an ancient churchyard at Kirkton of Kilmahew, had fallen into serious disrepair and near dereliction until after the Second World War.

However, in 1948, the chapel once again became the property of the Archdiocese after some of the Cardross seminarians and staff enthusiastically lobbied the then archbishop, Archbishop Campbell, to purchase it and bring it back into use.

Happy memories flooded back to Mgr Burns during that visit two years ago when he took Archbishop Conti on a guided tour of the Cardross gardens and grounds.

He said: "The restoration work began when the Cardross seminarians were encouraged to look into the history of St Mahew's. We believed then that it was well worth it - and it was."

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